Usually, if a play is at all successful, the audience won’t spend time considering the green exit signs in the corner of their peripheral vision. Sure, you might spend a half-second finding the emergency exits during the standard pre-show speech, but if you find yourself staring at escape routes instead of actors in the middle of Act II, something onstage has gone seriously wrong.
In Egress, a new production at Salt Lake Acting Company, though, it’s perfectly fine to gawk at these oft-forgotten exit signs—in fact, they are intentionally called out during the production. The play’s protagonist (Reanne Acasio,) known only as You, is an architect who specializes in egress, also known as the means of exiting a space, which, yes, includes those ubiquitous green eyesores. After a traumatic incident, which I won’t spoil, You needs a fresh start and accepts a teaching position at a sleepy small-town college. The move, though, hardly stops her insomnia, intrusive thoughts or general sense of anxiety. As You attempts to regain her sense of security, a prosecutor (Vee Vargas, who plays multiple roles) encourages her to testify in a case about the incident that originated her trauma.
Architectural safety and ethics may not sound like the most compelling subject matter for a drama, especially if, like me, you come in knowing next to nothing about the topic. Playwrights Melissa Crespo and Sarah Saltwick, though, use the protagonist’s career as an effective, unforced metaphor for the instability of trauma. You may be an expert on safety, but she can’t stop relitigating the time her own safety was most threatened, forcing her to reckon with the inherent insecurity of the world, especially as a woman. In one clever device, the play depicts several of You’s lectures, aided by projected images, which, besides providing interesting bits of architectural history, comment on the ways You feels trapped in her own mind.
Large sections of the play are addressed to the audience in second person, a conceit which requires Acasio to carry much of the play’s narrative and emotional arc all by herself. Acasio handles the challenge, building an authentic connection with the audience. She gives a subtle, vulnerable performance, depicting You’s fragile state-of-mind without resorting to histrionic extremes. Vargas and J.C. Ernst, playing the rest of the ensemble, are also compelling performers while providing some needed moments of levity. The lighting, designed by Jessica Greenberg, provides effective visual shorthand for moments that blur the lines between reality and You’s troubled consciousness and Dennis Hassan’s simple scenic design, mostly consisting of three walls of stacked white doors, reflects You’s anxious claustrophobia. Directed by Colette Robert, who also helmed the play’s virtual New Play Sounding Series Festival production at SLAC last year, the play slowly and surely builds tension as it reaches its climax. I wouldn’t call Egress a psychological thriller in the traditional sense, but the plot has just enough forward momentum to propel audiences through the mostly character-based drama.
Crespo and Saltwick don’t shy away from the political issues inherent to the plot. Several times during the play, You considers purchasing a gun for self-protection. (This is America after all.) As she weighs the decision, You contacts an online gun salesman with sexist assumptions about her motivations and questions whether the weapon will actually make her safer. Other characters have their own opinions on gun ownership, and their debates authentically lie beyond the expected liberal/conservative divide. At times, though, these social issues threaten to overwhelm the play’s delicate drama.
Less explicit, and more successful, are the questions Crespo and Saltwick raise about a criminal justice system that, on a massive scale, fails to protect women. You’s interactions with an attorney are a throughline in the play, and she is reluctant to testify in a trial that she expects will only add to her trauma and sense of instability. The ending finds a delicate balance between providing a resolution and suggesting that the legal system is not the most effective avenue for providing genuine healing. In one telling moment, You asks her students to design the safest places they can imagine—many inadvertently create prisons. You’s obsession with safety may be a natural response to a frightening world, but as Egress movingly shows, self-preservation is not the same as healing.
Egress will be performed in person through Feb. 27 and streamed online from Feb. 21-March 6. For tickets and more information, visit Salt Lake Acting Company’s website. Read more about theater in Utah.